Do It Right and Make It New

An Experiment

Carlo Rotella

For as long as I’ve known Charles Farrell, going on twenty years now, we have fallen into an impasse that features some version of me saying, “I really like the way that musician or that writer or that painter or that whatever did things properly,” and him saying, “That bored me because I wanted to see something done new.”  Or he says, “The way that musician or writer or whatever made it new spoke to me,” and I say, “I was unmoved because I felt they were trying to make it new at the expense of doing it right, or by default, because they didn’t know how to do it right.”  Do it right, make it new, around and around we go.

            This eternal recursion to loggerheads makes me feel . . . several ways at once.  I can see the merits of Charles’s way of looking at things, and I recognize that it’s valuable and even essential, and I’m often temporarily persuaded by him.  All he has to do to shake the foundations of my deep faith in doing it right is to mention Ken Burns or Steven Spielberg or some other figure who is celebrated for serially taking things I care about and pounding them with great craft skill into two-dimensional flatness.  It can work the other way, too:  all I have to do to shake his deep faith in innovation is bring up boxing.  But neither one of us stays persuaded long, and I can’t truly empathize with him.  Just when I’m starting to be swayed by his way of thinking, he will say something that reminds me just how far apart our sensibilities actually are.  He’ll mention that he’s not listening to jazz anymore, or tired of listening to music, or getting bored of reading, and I will wonder if he’s a carbon-based life form at all.  Even so, his impatience with mere competence can make me question the satisfaction I take in it.  Am I some kind of naive simpleton to be so easily pleased?

            In the normal course of my daily round, the flatline tendencies of my worldview typically look to others like pessimism—and so, even though I should know better, I begin to think of myself as a pessimist.  By flatline I mean that I tend to default to the assumption that things have always been just about as good and as bad as they are now, and don’t change all that much; that people, though capable of inspiration and brilliance, still generally do a pretty bad job at what they do because they give in to malign or lazy or craven or grandiose impulses that undermine their competence; and that therefore it’s a pleasure to see something done well, even if it’s been done exactly that way a thousand times before.  My flatline-ism means that I’m overjoyed when the garbage gets collected, when the rain stays on the other side of a correctly constructed roof, when another day goes by in which our jury-rigged social order hangs on and my neighbors and I are not reduced to snacking on each other’s femurs.  I’m similarly thrilled, in the realm of expressive creativity, when somebody plays a blues shuffle right, or executes a pick-and-roll, or paints a fish that has a quality of fishiness.  So it’s disorienting that Charles can make me feel, at least for a vertiginous moment or two, like some kind of emptyheaded optimist who’ll settle for any old thing.

            It seemed to me that these ripples of feeling, the impasse that produces them, and the larger principles that come together to shape the impasse might possibly extend into the lives of others and encounter similar ripples in the unlit deep places of their being where taste and meaning are formed.  This folio is an attempt to see if and how that’s true.  It consists of two interlarded elements: an edited transcript of excerpts of a dinner conversation Charles and I had with our friend James Parker in which the three of us set out to map the byways and resonances of the impasse, and a series of essays written by a crew of contributors (including ourselves) who we invited to help us understand and reconceive our impasse.

            This isn’t a debate, it’s an experimental expedition.  If I was trying to win, I would have stacked the deck with contributors who agree with me, but I’m trying to learn something—so, if anything, I wanted it stacked the other way.  And I think it’s only fair that, since I get to introduce and edit the whole thing, Charles gets to make his case at length.  Some of the people we invited to join us dashed off a response that tried to get us to make peace—Hey, come on, can’t we all agree that you need a little doing it right and a little making it new?—or to sternly break it up, as if we were two drunks struggling in a gutter.  We didn’t find those responses very useful, so they’re not included.  Yes, we get it:  both/and, not either/or.  But one thing I am pretty sure that Charles and I agree on is that sometimes you can learn something useful from drunks struggling in the gutter.  Sometimes, even, you can learn something useful from being one of those drunks struggling in the gutter. 

            I’m grateful to Charles, James, and all of our contributors for gamely and generously getting down in the gutter with me.

Carlo Rotella‘s latest book is The World Is Always Coming to an End: Pulling Together and Apart in a Chicago Neighborhood.  He is a professor of English at Boston College.

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